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Morphological complexity in Skolt Saami, an endangered Finno-Ugric language

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Hanna Danbolt Ajer.

Skolt Saami, a severely endangered Finno-Ugric language spoken in the far northeast of Finland, is noteworthy for its complex phonology and morphology, and the interaction between the two. Its phonology exhibits contrastive vowel length, consonant gradation, vowel height alternations, suprasegmental palatalisation and a three-way distinction in phonological quantity. On the morphological level, nouns and verbs fall into distinct inflectional classes. Nouns inflect for number and nine grammatical cases – and in addition may optionally inflect to mark possession – while verbs inflect for person, number, tense and mood.

Following a brief overview of the most interesting aspects of Skolt Saami phonology and morphophonology, I will give a detailed account of the inflectional system, focusing on the complex array of stem alternations which are brought about by the aforementioned morphophonological processes. Historically, these sound changes were motivated by a number of factors – e.g. grade alternations, unstressed vowel contractions and second-syllable vowel alternations – which were usually due to the phonological properties of the suffixed morphemes. However, diachronic changes in Skolt Saami, such as the loss of word-final consonants, have removed the conditioning environments and rendered many of these sound changes opaque. Synchronically, then, these sound changes may be treated as being morphologically conditioned.

In understanding Skolt Saami inflection, it is helpful to think of the inflectional stems as arising from the combination of several simpler processes which converge to produce an incredibly fragmented paradigm. For example, a three-way split in stem gradation may combine not only with a split in vowel quality but also with a split in the presence of palatalisation to give rise to seven unique stems.

Finally, I will touch upon two interesting aspects of Skolt Saami syntax, namely negation and the different uses of case marking, before ending with a look at a short Skolt Saami narrative.

Dr Tim Feist is a member of the Surrey Morphology Group, and is currently investigating how gender and classifiers aid the tracking of referents throughout discourse. He has a predilection for complex morphology, and has previously worked on the intricate system of inflectional classes in Oto-Manguean, a Native American language family. For his PhD at the University of Manchester, he developed a grammar for Skolt Saami.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group series.

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